Who is … Ulrik Wilbek?

Handball, isn’t that the game you play off the wall?

The team version is similar to basketball, but with a football-type goal instead of a hoop and a backboard. The sport originated in Denmark, depending on who you ask, in 1896 in Ordrup, near Copenhagen, or in 1897 in Nyborg on Funen. The 2013 World Championship gets underway on Friday and the Danish side is one of the favourites to win. 

A Danish world champion – that’d be something new.

Not for Wilbek, actually. In 1996, he coached the women to Olympic glory, and then in 1997, he coached the women’s team to the World Championship. Overall, he’s racked up 13 top-three finishes with the men’s or women’s squads in the World Championship, European Championship and Olympics. 

Men’s and women’s teams?

Yes, after quitting coaching at the international level, he became a league coach, where he wound up leading his team to four national championships and a handball Champions League final. He then took over at the helm of the men’s national team.

How’s that gone for him?

No World Championship golds yet, but Denmark is due. They won bronze in 2007 and silver in 2011. They’ve also won the European Championship gold twice, in 2008 and 2012.

Yeah, but winning isn’t everything. What else has he done with his life?

He was a successful local politician, and he’s the author of motivational books and gives lectures.

Ah, the obligatory off-season busywork. 

Maybe, but he’s been a big hit with managers who can apply his philosophy that leadership is about motivating the player or the employee to want to do more.

So, he’s one of these ‘what do you feel like doing today’ types?

Actually, he says a good dusting down can be useful. The difference, he says, is not whether you tell someone off, but how and when. He describes an episode with the men’s team before a particular game, when he decided to dust them off at the start of the game, rather than during half-time, as he was expecting to have to do it. When he was done, he told them he didn’t want to have to repeat what he said. Apparently it worked. 

Some gold dust would be nice.

Well, the team is favoured to finish in the top four, but if Denmark wins it will probably be due to his players wanting to win, and not being afraid of losing. As he wrote in his recent book: “I’m not the one taking the court, and I can’t single-handedly motivate people, but I can inspire.”